“Varieties of Pain”: An Exploration of Female Melancholy in the Victorian Realist Novel

  • Author / Creator
    Fieldberg, Allison L
  • This dissertation is about the work of melancholy in the Victorian realist novel, particularly those texts written in the late 1840s. The representation of melancholy affords an examination of a wide scope of issues that relate to the family, generally, and to the role of the middle-class women in the family in this particular historical moment, specifically. Because of the close association between the strategies of psychiatric treatment in the period and ideologies of the “proper” organization of the bourgeois family, writing or thinking about mental illness or theories of the mind necessarily calls up theories of the domestic and vice versa. Because early Victorian psychiatrists or alienists, as they were called, predicated sound mental health on the ability of an individual to maintain self-control, exhibit “proper” gendered behavior, and in a sense, cooperate with his or her male guardians within a pseudo-domestic structure, notions of the “ideal” family scene invariably arise in all discussions of the treatment of the mentally ill. The three texts discussed in this thesis reveal a female protagonist who is more or less melancholic but importantly, each text attributes the arrival of its protagonist’s melancholic suffering and the exacerbation of this suffering to debilitating domestic circumstances. Each of these melancholic female characters becomes acutely aware of her failures and her missteps through a protracted engagement with melancholic introspection. Importantly, her desire to conform and, in some sense, re-commit herself to the cult of the domestic arises in the moment of her most intense melancholic suffering. In the isolation and solitude that melancholy affords, each of these protagonists connects to a mode of self-reflection and introspection that allows them to see not only the ways they have diverged from the “ideal” of “proper” womanhood, but importantly, to recognize that the mitigation of this divergence necessitates submission to forms of social and familial control that will only further their suffering. Thus, melancholy, in my estimation and in these novels, is very rarely a means by which the female melancholic protagonist rebels or reforms domestic structure. Rather, it is most often the means by which she, and the novel itself, reaffirm the centrality of the “home” within middle-class social structure at mid-century.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2012
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
  • Language
  • Institution
    University of Alberta
  • Degree level
  • Department
  • Specialization
    • English
  • Supervisor / co-supervisor and their department(s)
  • Examining committee members and their departments
    • Surridge, Lisa (English)
    • Sinnema, Peter (English and Film Studies)
    • Greer, Joan (Art & Design)
    • Hamilton, Susan (English and Film Studies)
    • Simpson, Mark (English and Film Studies)